Just as the grillerati claim there are no good BBQ spots in NYC, it’s even more incontrovertible to state there are no cheap Korean BBQ joints. By their nature, like steakhouses, Korean BBQ restaurants are expensive. They deal in premium cuts of cloven hoofed animals peddled to ravished customers, bleary eyed from shoju and beer, and when you’re dealing with predominantly raw meat a certain base line level of quality is not only expected but hygienically necessary.
Our destination as discovered by our researcher-in-chief (whose efforts extend no further than posting queries on Chowhound message boards) came about through a desire to find affordable Korean BBQ. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, this is basically an impossible endeavor. Sure, there are great places throughout the city, but dinner at one of them is guaranteed to set you back at least $80 bucks (unless you fill up on 99 cent pizza slices before hand).
When Mr. Researcher-in-chief came back with BBQ Village as the only fruit of his endeavors, we were skeptical. Besides being located deep in the subway-less reaches of northern Queens, it is also an all you can eat buffet. ‘All you can eat buffet’ is a dubious proposal at best, offering a promise of abundance at the outset and the inevitable guarantee of a guilt ridden bellyache upon completion. Now couple that with DIY grills set up on each table, eight starved and besotted young men, and disaster is just waiting to strike.
All of my suspicions not only turned out to be unfounded, but patently contrary to the events that unfolded. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lovely staff were used to customers like us (‘starved and besotted’) and calmly guided us through the meal like veteran triage nurses. The restaurant itself was spacious, comfy, and discreet–our conversations, often carried out at a decibel level more suited for a North Sea oil rig than a restaurant, did not receive any disapproving glances from the other patrons. And aside from the occasional placing of raw cuts of meat adjacent to cooked meat on our table top grills (which, to be fair, annoyed no one but me), the dinner proceeded without so much as a hitch.
It’s worth noting that the buffet table that dominates the center of the restaurant needs to be navigated with care. I imagine this advice goes for every all you can buffet, but it is critical to avoid certain selections on offer–head over to the specialties of the house and put all other dishes out of your mind. For BBQ Village, that meant avoiding the various precooked meat, seafood, vegetables, and noodles and heading directly to the raw meat section where thin slices of beef brisket and short rib, thick cut pork belly, marinated skirt steaks, and piles of head-on shrimp glistened under the fluorescent lights.
Still unsure of ourselves as we took our seats, over laden plates of protein in our hands, we glanced suspiciously at the conical-hat grills that lay dormant in front of us. As the hostess reached over our shoulders to light the grills, the empty spaces of the table filled up with large bottles of beer, dishes of kimchi, and plates of green lettuce leaves piled high. With a glance around the first one of us took the plunge and before we knew it the sizzling hiss of protein meeting a hot implement competed with the heady smell of grilling meat to dominate our dulled senses. And that’s why Korean BBQ is so darn cool: you cook your own food, you have some agency in the whole endeavor, instead of being a passenger in the normal run-of-the-mill restaurant experience you at least have the illusion of shaping the outcome of your meal.
As for the taste of the food itself? It was delicious. Nothing was needed except for the aforementioned meats, a little kimchi warmed up on the grill, some spicy red sauce, and those large leaves of impossibly green lettuce. A surprisingly healthy meal in retrospect and one that digested very well. If I was pressed for my favorite, it would have to be the marinated skirt steak and the thick cut pork belly. But in reality, the simple succulence of fresh-off-the-grill, highly seasoned meat swaddled in a blanket of crisp lettuce with a little dollop of sour, fermented kimchi is all that needs to be said; take the menus away, we’re cooking for ourselves this evening.
The best thing about all this? The price after 10 pm reduces to a jaw dropping, cheek palming, $19.99/person. To repeat: $19.99/person.
Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time—he’s also the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s executive editorial director of food. Here’s what he has to say about the origins of Mensday Wednesday: “Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here, and in a huge city, built on the contributions of operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: Price is important—the final bill should never cause us to wince; “international” cuisine is preferred; and in the event of a debate, BYOB is the trump card.”
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